Alma Rodriguez’s childhood nickname was “Little Napoleon.”
At first glance, the obvious reason is her just more than 4-foot stature. But after a conversation about how she came to be the queen at the Queen Bee’s Art and Cultural Center in North Park, it’s her determination and self-proclaimed “need to be in control” that earns her the title.
Before Queen Bee’s, there was Hot Monkey Love – a College area club that grew from a hangout Rodriguez designed for her teenage children, who she said needed a place to be creative that would compensate for the art programs being removed from their school. It soon expanded to host a variety of events from art shows to open mic nights.
“It got so popular that we had three to four hundred people coming in every day,” said Rodriguez. “The demand was pretty amazing.”
With the demand, however, came complaints from the neighbors, who weren’t thrilled with the equally creative noise and traffic problems. Rodriguez decided to move, trading in her club for a more subdued cultural center on North Park’s Ohio Street. In 2008, she began restoring the 3,500 square foot property to what it is today.
“I thought, if we can make it fit our style then it can be a really great location because it’s right in the middle of North Park,” said Rodriguez.
The redesign took about two years and included new walls, a bamboo dance floor and fresh paint, among other amenities. Despite the popularity of Hot Monkey Love, Rodriguez had walked away from it without much in the way of financial equity, leaving limited options when it came to jumpstarting Queen Bee’s.
“It was kind of scary to start something with very limited financial resources,” Rodriguez said. “But we did it with volunteers, and with people who really believed in making it happen.”
Over the past five years, Queen Bee’s has become a multi-purpose venue for concerts, dance classes, art shows, open mic nights and special events.
“There’s not a lot of support for the artist,” Rodriguez said. “There’s a lot of demand, but not a lot of people who want to take a risk on a new artist.”
Rodriguez said she’s willing to work with almost anyone in need of a venue — even local students – provided they present her with a coherent idea and event plan. She said it’s not so much about making money as it is fostering a creative environment within the community.
“It’s been an experience to learn from one another,” she said of the “creative minds” she has met so far. “It’s almost unbelievable how much talent people can have.”
Rodriguez, an artist and musician herself, can certainly be included among that talent, and she has a great sense of humor to boot. When asked where she came from before moving to San Diego, she laughed and said, “I come from Space!”
“Seriously,” she added, “I’m not a normal person.”
But all joking aside, Rodriguez’s life has had its share of ups and downs. When she was 16, she ran away from home and her strict military father in Puerto Rico, arriving, with a friend, in New York City. A spat with her friend’s boyfriend soon left her homeless in the Big Apple.
After about seven months of living on the streets with intermittent bouts of couch-surfing, she found work and acceptance as a drummer in a punk rock band, playing in the very nightclubs she was still too young to legally enter.
“I was living the dream of being a punk rock wannabe in the ‘80s,” Rodriguez said with a smile. “I always claim I was the first Latino with a mohawk.”
Rodriguez enjoyed that gig until her friends began to delve into hard drugs. Her Napoleonic need to remain in control kept Rodriguez from joining them, and to escape the madness she moved to Florida in the mid-80s. There she met and married her husband of 19 years, and completed her GED before going on to college.
It was a job as a server aboard a cruise ship that changed the course of Rodriguez’s life. She met a guest who would offer her a job as a talent scout, encouraging her to find people who weren’t main stream and promote them. She was soon put in charge of one of his clubs before taking on ownership.
But her professional success was offset by a disintegrating marriage, and it was when she lost custody of her four children that everything fell apart.
“I was losing my mind,” said Rodriguez. “I didn’t care about the money, or him taking the business, or the car. I just cared that he was not compromising with my children.”
Needing to “get the heck away from Florida,” Rodriguez moved to San Diego, where her happy ending is still in the making.
She eventually won partial custody, and three of her four grown children currently live nearby. Now that each have their own active lives, Rodriguez devotes her attention to Queen Bee’s, her fifth child as it were, which she said she would one day like to turn into a franchise.
Until then, she can often be found on site, making sure everything is running smoothly.
“I spend a lot of time here, and I love every moment of it,” Rodriguez said. “It’s almost like my castle.”